We really felt as though the round the world tour was getting somewhere when we arrived in Moscow. We stayed overnight so that we had some time to explore before boarding the Moscow to Beijing Train. Travelling on the trans-Siberian railway was a real bucket list trip for me. I was really looking forward to it.
As I discovered when I started planning, there is really no single trans-Siberian route. Basically, you get the choice of three routes. Firstly, there is the all-Russian route from Moscow to Vladivostock on the far eastern edge of the country. Then there are two routes into China. The trans-Mongolian route which turns south just after Lake Baikal and winds its way through Mongolia before reaching Beijing. Then there’s the one we took on our trans-Siberian railway itinerary. The trans-Manchurian route. Our train went further east in Russia before turning south through Inner Mongolia. Then past Harbin in China and on to Beijing.
Sightseeing in Moscow
But before we got on the train we had some sightseeing to do. We started the day with a lazy morning as we had to check out at 12 pm. Of course, that meant we were then homeless until 11:45 pm when our train left for Beijing. Since we were just getting used to the luxury of the Moscow Hilton going back to basics on the train for 7 nights wasn’t all that appealing after all.
We had a full day’s sightseeing planned. This was our chance ito see as much of Moscow as we could. So I wanted to make the most of it. Russia was all rather new and exciting. A bit of a change weather-wise from yesterday. The sun was shining and most of the snow was now gone. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much warmer especially after being inside the hotel. The Russians keep their buildings very warm and toasty. Of course, it does mean a bit of a shock when you go outside.
Moscow Hop on Hop off bus
We found a Hop on Hop off bus in the centre of Moscow. So I decided it would be a good way to get to know the city. They are an easy way of seeing a bit further afield than just walking. Since they take in most of the major tourist attractions it gives you an idea of what to see. We’ve used them before in other cities from time to time. The Moscow one is pretty good value at around £15 for the day. It takes you across the river. So we got to see areas of Moscow that we wouldn’t have necessarily found on foot. Also, you get a commentary in multiple languages to fill you in on some details.
Your ticket includes two routes, red and green. The red one covers the central area and the green one goes further out. Now, they also offer a boat trip and a walking tour in with the price of your ticket. That wasn’t available when we took the tour so it’s even better value now.
We boarded the bus near Red Square and chose to start with the red route. Rather than get on and off we actually rode the entire route all the way around. This gave us a good overall feel for the city. Then we chose some places to spend more time at and rode around again. Getting off at places of interest this time. It’s the way we always use these buses as it’s a great way to orientate yourself with a new city.
There was some kind of demonstration taking place near to Red Square so there was quite a large police presence. They’d erected barriers and security scanners around the main plaza area. There were a lot of red banners and it was quite noisy but it all seemed peaceful. I think this was the gathering point for those going on a march. However, we never did find out exactly what was going on.
We got some great views of the Kremlin from across the river. From the bus, we also saw the Bolshoi, Church of Christ the Saviour, Arbat Street and lots more. It was a good decision to take the bus.
Then we returned to Red Square and had lunch in the coffee shop underneath. There is a huge shopping mall here which is very handy and access to the Metro is through here. We took the Metro to Gorky Park for a walk. I assume it looks better in summer because it is a pretty sorry place in winter. Unfortunately, they are doing a lot of renovations and there was more scaffolding and building equipment than grass or plants. There was plenty of mud though, nasty red stuff!
From here we walked through a sculpture park. Some of it was more of a sculpture graveyard! Somewhere all the old sculptures are piled up out of the way. It is an odd place but further down it’s full of busts of politicians and famous writers and artists.
On the river is a huge sculpture in black. This consists of lots of boats and a man looking out across the river. It is called the Peter the Great statue and commemorates 300 years of the Russian navy which he established. Actually, it is the 8th tallest statue in the world. Designed by a Georgian designer, Zurab Tsereteli, it was erected in 1997. For various reasons, it is somewhat controversial. It is quite striking but not to everyone’s taste apparently. In fact, it has regularly appeared on lists of the world’s ugliest buildings and Muscovites are nonplussed at commemorating the man who moved the Russian capital to St Petersburg. Fascinating though.
Waiting to leave
After a busy day in Moscow, we returned to the hotel and spent the evening relaxing in the lobby bar. It was a very comfortable place to wait for the train. We secured some nice armchairs near the fireplace and enjoyed several nice pots of tea. Before setting off for the station we popped out to the local supermarket. Here we stocked up on supplies for the 7-day Moscow to Beijing train journey. We’d been assured that we would be able to get essentials at stations en-route but we weren’t taking any chances. As it turns out this was the right decision. We found very little for sale on the stations in Siberia.
At the Station
Moscow Yaroslavsky station is just a short walk from the Hilton hotel. It’s actually right next door to Leningradska station which is where we arrived by metro the day before. We visited Yaroslavsky station earlier in the day so we knew our way around. Although we wouldn’t know which platform our Moscow to Beijing train was leaving from until later. However, we were concerned when our train wasn’t listed on the departures board although later trains were.
I left Paul to guard the bags and went inside to view the main departure board. Going inside means scanning all your bags as they increased security for the Sochi Winter Olympics. Then left it all in place permanently. It’s very time consuming and awkward with the rucksacks but without a bag, you just walk right on in. Our train was listed on the main board though so there was no need to panic. However, there was still no platform number.
We had a rough idea of which area of the station it was likely to go from though as one end is dedicated to long-distance trains. You don’t get much more long-distance than ours. As it turned out we just had time to stock up on some beer and water before our train arrived right where we were waiting.
On our way to Beijing
We left Moscow on Saturday night at 11.45pm. Our passports and tickets were checked by the two provodnitsas (carriage attendants) who were waiting outside carriage 4. Then we were allowed onto the train to find out compartment (number 3 with berth 5 and 6).
This was to be our home for the next 7 days. So we were quite relieved to find it was ok, clean and reasonably spacious. Having two lower berths gives a bit more space than we had on the Warsaw to Moscow train. This train was also much newer and we had two large pillows which doubled up as cushions for day-time use. There was storage space everywhere. Above the doorway. Under the seats. Behind the headrests. So we stowed away as much stuff as possible. Then shared a couple of bottles of beer and watched as the train pulled out of the station on its way to Beijing.
Our train took the Trans-Manchurian route which goes across Siberia, staying north of Mongolia. We passed Lake Baikal and crossed the border into China directly from Russia. It is called the Vostok (train 20) and runs once a week on a Saturday night. So best not to miss it. It is slightly longer than the Trans-Mongolian route but that runs on a Tuesday and didn’t fit our schedule. Avoiding Mongolia means we saved the cost of visas which was useful. Especially as we’d already paid a substantial amount for Belarus, Russian and Chinese visas.
We spent most of the time on the train in our compartment – there really isn’t anywhere else to go. We brought lots of food with us. Some from the UK and some picked up at the supermarket in Moscow. So we were fairly self-sufficient for the trip. Endless boiling water is available from the samovar at the end of the carriage. So Heinz soup made from little tubes of paste, Smash and tinned salmon and tuna salad meals became part of our daily routine. Along with chocolate, biscuits and bananas.
Life on the Trans-Manchurian Train
Since we travelled in March which is out of season our carriage was very quiet for most of the journey. Apart from a German couple, we were the only people travelling all the way from Moscow to Beijing. From time to time some other passengers would get on and travel for a day or so. However, the train remained pretty quiet for the entire journey. I think this was because we were in 1st class as lots of people appeared on the platform when we stopped.
This isn’t a tourist train and so it makes regular stops. it’s actually a pretty slow train. Still, it’s not supposed to be the fast way of getting to China. If the train stops for long enough the provodnistas let us get off. They didn’t speak much English but they were pretty clear. They guard their carriage fiercely so your things are quite safe inside if you get off to stretch your legs. Inside the train, we wore t-shirts and shorts but outside you needed full winter clothing on. Siberia is cold!
As we travelled across Siberia the landscape was mainly snow and trees. So I was excited to see fisherman fishing through ice-holes on the frozen rivers. It broke up the monotony of trees and snow. Time goes by surprisingly fast on the train. One day turns into two. Before we knew it the landscape was changing and we got our first glimpse of Lake Baikal.
I was looking forward to this. It was absolutely one of the highlights of the trip for me. The lake is 636km from north to south but only 60km wide. It is the world’s deepest lake, 1637m near the western shore. Lake Baikal contains nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh, unfrozen water. More than the five Great Lakes in North America combined. We spent all one morning travelling around the lake so we got a good look at it. Fisherman actually drive onto the ice in places! As it was clearly beginning to thaw this looked rather dangerous but I’m sure they know what they were doing.
The train stopped fairly regularly, although there were often hours and hours between stops. Of course, some of those were in the middle of the night. Where the train was stopping for 20 minutes or so we were able to get off. We shopped at the little kiosks which sell drinks and snacks. Also, sometimes beer, although that seemed to be an under the counter purchase! You can also buy food and snacks from the babushkas. They sell homemade goodies and it makes a nice change from packed food.
We didn’t see many babushkas although we did buy some nice bread from one to have with our soup. Mainly the stations have very little of interest to see. Anyway, you can’t venture far from your carriage. Let alone off the platform as you wouldn’t want to risk getting left behind. Paul took loads of photos en route. Although the Lonely Planet guide reports that one of their writers was detained by the police for taking photos on the platform. I had omitted to tell Paul this but even once he found out it didn’t stop him.
As we travelled further across Siberia the vista of snow and ice began to thaw. East of Ulan-Ude (where the Trans-Mongolian heads south) the snow was thinner on the ground. The landscape became more mountainous and a lot more varied. We also saw some interesting sights of the non-landscape variety. Two transporter loads of tanks (going west) and a huge parking lot full of them!
Changing Time Zones
After a few days, we got into something of a routine. Travelling so far east, the time zones are constantly changing. So, we decided to stay on Moscow time +4 as that is the same as Beijing. That way, we’d be acclimatised.
Although local time was Moscow + 5 (or even +6 I’m not really sure) at times, the train remained firmly on Moscow time. It’s a bit bizarre. In fact, quite confusing. We put our phones on Beijing time but the clock in the corridor reminded us of Moscow time. Knowing Moscow time is essential to know when the station stops will occur. Of course, we needed time to put on jeans, boots and coats ready to hop out into the cold.
Although it was nowhere near as cold as we were expecting. It was cold on the platforms but bearable. At times, the sun was out which was nice. Onboard the Moscow to Beijing train, it is always warm. When we boarded on Saturday it was 26 degrees and really uncomfortably hot. Fortunately, it cooled down overnight and stayed around 22 degrees.
The Moscow to Beijing Train at the Russian/Chinese Border
On Thursday, we were kicked off the train at 7.22am by our provodnitsa who cheerfully told us that we had 3 hours free time. This wasn’t altogether unexpected as we knew we would cross over the border from Russia into China today. Since Russia runs on a different rail gauge to China, our train was taken away to have its wheels changed. So we were all removed from the train at the small station of Zabaikalsk. There is very little at the station indeed. Although the exterior of the station building is quite attractive the inside is rather bare. Fortunately, it does have some toilets, a small waiting room and a café.
We watched the train roll away and crossed the bridge to walk into the town. There is very little in the town either. It seems to have been under construction at some point but that seems to have stopped. However, we found some useful shops. A greengrocer’s where we were able to purchase tomatoes and apples and some kind of brightly coloured dried fruit. Also, a small store where we purchased crisps, chocolate, cheese, bread and beer. I was very pleased with this. Our shopping expedition added some variety to a rather monotonous diet. Of course, a fresh supply of chocolate always lifts my spirits!
Shopping in Zabaikalsk
Slightly later than the promised 3 hours, our train rolled back into the platform and we were allowed back on board. Waiting around the station with our fellow passengers highlighted how few of us there actually are on board. We are not due to leave the Russian station until just after 2 pm Russian time. So although we were back in our compartment we weren’t going anywhere soon. Next came immigration checks. After our passports were checked we waited.
Crossing the border is a slow process
In fact, it was a very long wait. Various officials visited our compartment over a period of several hours. Some looked at our passports, some more closely than others. At one point they were taken away which always makes me uncomfortable. However, there’s not much you can do about it.
Our train compartment was thoroughly searched. They climbed on the seats to look in the overhead racks and looked under the seats and poked our rucksacks. A very cute dog came round twice for a look as well. Having said that, they didn’t seem all that concerned or interested in us. Although it is quite hard to tell when you don’t speak the language. Based on body language and the odd smile they seemed fairly happy with us. Our provodnitsa followed them around and seemed happy enough also. I’m sure they’re used to it.
They were certainly very thorough in checking the train out though. We heard someone on the roof and they took all the inside roof panels out. They even checked the piping and along the walls. And this is all to leave Russia! Next, we had to get into China.
The Moscow to Beijing Train arrives in China
We finally left the Russian border station about an hour late. I was very excited as we rolled out of the station under a large archway. Then through some large gates held open by Chinese security guards. We stopped short of the Chinese border station and were boarded by Chinese security. However, Chinese passport control passed a lot more quickly than the Russian equivalent and we were soon rolling into the station.
Here, we were allowed off the train to visit the shop inside the main station building. The shop was very small but we managed to purchase some chocolate biscuits. Also some Chinese beer! Then we headed back downstairs to the train. Unfortunately, a Russian bound train had since entered the station. So everyone was kept inside the building until the new train had been cleared. A series of Chinese border personnel guarded the door for about 30 minutes before we were eventually allowed back onto the platform.
By now it was very late, freezing cold and people weren’t overly happy. The power had been off on the train for hours so that wasn’t very warm either. Never mind, we had made it to China.
The Moscow to Beijing Train continues across China
Although crossing the border felt like a massive step forward in our journey to Beijing, we still had quite a long way to go. It was still very cold in China as we crossed Inner Mongolia. We saw several frozen rivers although the fields had little snow on them.
The landscape in China is varied from wide-open spaces and small rural settlements to more built-up and commercialised areas.
We also started to see more high-rise buildings as we moved further into China. There was evidence of massive amounts of new building works as older low-rise neighbourhoods are being replaced.
We even saw some oil fields. In fact, these seemed to be dotted around all over this area. Before this, I didn’t know they did oil drilling in China.
As our trans-Siberian adventure drew to a close, we enjoyed the change of scenery as we travelled through the Chinese countryside. On our last day on the train, we travelled south towards Harbin. You might already know that Harbin is most famous for its winter ice festival. I’d love to see that someday.
Nearly in China
With only one more day on the train, we started to organise ourselves for our arrival in Beijing. We gathered all our hotel reservations and maps together. I also found my instructions for purchasing a Beijing travel card. I printed out a request for 2 tickets printed in Chinese characters. I’ve copied it below so you can see.
Basically, this says that I want to buy two of the Beijing smartcards and put 20 Yuan on each. In fact, the smartcard is called a Yikatong in Chinese. Actually, I’m so glad I did this as nobody in the kiosks spoke much English. So I just passed across this piece of paper. The girl behind the desk looked really relieved when I gave it to her and we quickly got our tickets. You can’t assume people in foreign countries will speak English and so it’s always best to plan ahead. I think we’d probably have got there by just saying Yikatong and pointing to two of us. I’m quite creative with sign language and a few well-chosen words but this was probably better.
We also had to pick up our train tickets to Xian and Nanjing when we arrived at Beijing Main Station. Our train arrived at 5.46 am so I was worried that the station might be quite deserted and the ticket offices closed. No need to worry though, it was bustling with activity when we arrived.
I’m going to leave it there for now and I’ll cover our time in Beijing and across China in future blog posts. As always, I’ll add image links in the gallery below. So you can easily find all the other articles in this series on our Around the World Without Flying Trip.